The Big Horn Basin’s three members of the Wyoming Wildlife Task Force didn’t waste time with a lot of introductions on Tuesday, getting straight into listening to area hunters, …
The Big Horn Basin’s three members of the Wyoming Wildlife Task Force didn’t waste time with a lot of introductions on Tuesday, getting straight into listening to area hunters, outfitters, landowners and business owners. Before they closed, the group at the Park County Fairgrounds had waded through a myriad of major issues and headed straight for the weeds.
Task force members Rep. Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, Park County Commissioner and outfitter Lee Livingston and former outfitter and Park County landowner Duaine Hagen scheduled the listening session to get feedback on possible proposals and develop new ideas. Gov. Mark Gordon assembled the team of 18 individuals with hopes of developing acceptable proposals.
There was trepidation the meeting could turn contentious, as hunting and wildlife issue passions run deep here. The broad subject matter — from license allocation and the weapons hunters can use to invasive species and the overall sustainability of wildlife and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department — has the potential to be overwhelming.
Yet, despite facing the possibility of costlier licenses and fees for residents and the typical divides between groups in attendance, there were few fireworks. The small but well-prepared crowd was eager to dive head-first into the conversation, only ending due to time restrictions. None of the issues are quick fixes and each comes with consequences to the species and harvests.
“I think the reason these issues have been so hard to solve is because they are so intricate and intertwined and complicated that, if you make one little tweak, there are likely to be unintended consequences,” Flitner said.
Resident hunters are frustrated with limited licenses, access, and overall opportunities to hunt. Only one proposal — to change the distribution of “the big five” hunting licenses (moose, sheep, grizzly, goat and bison) and offer 15% more to residents — received close to a consensus during Tuesday’s listening session. But even the seemingly most popular proposal comes with several sticking points.
Changing the distribution to a 90%/10% resident/non-resident split will cost the Game and Fish department about $200,000 in revenue. It also has the potential to put off tourism to the state at a time when increased tourism is seen as a possible fix for decreasing mineral extraction revenue, and it includes a species (the grizzly bear) that’s still listed for protections under the Endangered Species Act. Even if the change is made, it won’t substantially increase Wyomingites’ odds of drawing coveted big five tags, Flitner said. The proposal would also limit hunters to a once-in-a lifetime opportunity, regardless of harvest results.
A move to similarly change the split with elk, deer and antelope licenses to increase allocation to resident hunters could cost the Game and Fish Department millions of dollars. Only non-residents are required to buy preference points for ungulates and, in doing so, they subsidize resident hunting, Flitner said. Game and Fish is mostly funded by hunters and federal taxes from the sale of hunting and fishing equipment. None of the department’s current funding comes from the State of Wyoming’s general funds.
“At what point do we get so high that it is just a rich man sport,” Livingston said of allowing the market to determine the price. “If you run it like a business, do you drive folks away?”
If the price of resident licenses went up about $10, that could increase Game and Fish revenues by about $1 million, Flitner said. But the department brings in millions from the sale of non-resident preference points for the right to hunt in the future.
Hagen cautioned against turning away non-resident hunters.
“We better start looking at revenue in the state,” he said. “We’re going to lose a lot of revenue we take for granted.”
Tourism, including from non-resident hunters, is the second-largest source of revenue in Wyoming. Limiting non-resident hunting also affects family members, like those who have moved out of state but would still like to come home to hunt with family in Wyoming.
Offering fewer non-resident licenses could also drive away out-of-state hunters who are unwilling to wait several years to draw a tag, Livingston pointed out. There’s a fear that the preference points system is unsustainable, with hunters likely having to wait decades before accumulating enough preference points to obtain a license.
Those in attendance offered suggestions to alleviate frustrations by hunters unable to draw a tag, pulling some concepts from neighboring states.
Livingston said the task force is willing to listen to all ideas, but Wyoming is unique due to its low population and abundance of game.
“On the surface it seems like well, other states are doing it, we should do it. But I think we need to look at what works for Wyoming,” he said. “Other states have millions of people in them and a smaller wildlife resource than Wyoming does. So that needs to be addressed. If we’re going to move forward with something, I don’t think there’s a one-size fits all [remedy]. But I do understand the frustration with folks not being able to draw tags.”
Task force members and those in attendance both agreed on the most important issue: protecting habitat and wildlife resources.
“I think the number one issue is resource management,” Flitner said. “We want to make sure Wyoming continues to have the best wildlife of any state in the nation.”
Healthy habitat and wildlife management, as well as conservation of non-game species in Wyoming, is largely paid for through the sale of hunting licenses and fees.
“It isn’t about me. It can’t be just about me,” said Powell resident Tim Metzler. “It’s got to be about everybody and all of our opportunities, but we still have to leave something in the field. We always need to be concerned about what we leave in the field when we’re done.”
One proposal receiving positive reaction would make harvest surveys mandatory. Currently the state gives hunters the option of reporting success and failure in the field. Many in attendance supported a possible proposal requiring timely reporting of harvests or forfeiting future hunting rights.
Other issues discussed included: policies and practices that might support and incentivize private landowners as stewards of wildlife habitat; supporting outfitters and their guests to maximize the benefits to Wyoming’s economy and wildlife; the distribution of commissioners licenses; management schemes; and methods to improve and better serve Wyoming residents and wildlife. Also up for discussion is the long-term stability of the Game and Fish, poaching and its punishment, invasive species mitigation, trapping and hiking safety, wildlife traffic mortality, technology and fair chase hunting ethics, the Endangered Species Act and access for all hunters.
As the meeting progressed, the discussion leaped from specified topics to issues that probably won’t result in proposals from the task force. For instance, finding a way to tax non-consumptive users — like installing toll gates for tourists or finding a way to make the purchase of conservation stamps mandatory for hikers and wildlife watchers — made their way into the debate.
“We’re getting off into the weeds on those [topics],” Livingston warned.
But the task force members were there to listen and promised to schedule future listening sessions.
“This is a distance race, not a sprint,” Flitner said. “In the end, not everybody’s going to be happy … There’s gotta be give and take on both ends.”
Task force members pleaded for comments, though hundreds throughout the state have already interacted with the group through online and hand-written comments.
“Please submit those comments,” Flitner told the Powell audience, “because you’d be amazed that, during the session when these issues come up, we don’t hear from people like you.”
For more information, visit sites.google.com/wyo.gov/wyomingwildlifetaskforce.